When Two Employees Hate Each Other

By Dan Oswald
President, M. Lee Smith Publishers

Just My E-pinion

What do you do when you have two employees who hate each other? In today’s Advisor, M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC president Dan Oswald shares his thoughts—and his solution.

In a recent meeting I asked about employees who hate each other. I got a few chuckles and wisecracks, but I was serious—I’ve seen workplaces in which employees couldn’t stand each another and it got in the way of productivity.

So I went back to my office and Googled it. Well, technically I searched on “employee dislike coworker.” (Hate is such a strong word.)

Obviously, I’m not the only one thinking or writing about this. My search results included page after page of links to information about employees’ dislike of their coworkers. The top result was “10 Surefire Ways to Get Your Coworkers to Hate You.”

So employee dislike for one another doesn’t appear to be an isolated issue. That shouldn’t be surprising. Put dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people in the same building and not everyone is going to get along.

But I’m not just talking about an employee not caring for a coworker. I’m talking about coworkers who actively dislike each other and it’s apparent in the workplace. They treat each other rudely and are unwilling to work together productively. They might even actively work to sabotage one another.

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Hundreds of business books have been written extolling the benefits of collaboration and teamwork. We constantly hear about the importance of team chemistry in both sports and business. Here’s what Dr. Scott Williams of Wright State University said about team chemistry in his free newsletter LeaderLetter.

Team chemistry is the composition of a team and the relationships among team members. Good team chemistry helps a team achieve its goals, and it results when (a) a team has members who possess the right competencies and (b) they work effectively together to achieve synergies. We most often notice that a team has poor chemistry when the members are talented but fail to work well together to make the most of their abilities. For instance, team members failing to play roles that their teams need someone to play or engaging in unproductive conflict are examples of problems with team chemistry.

I think Dr. Williams nailed the issue I’m talking about when he wrote, “engaging in unproductive conflict” causes problems with team chemistry. And if team chemistry is what helps the team be productive and achieve its goals, then two employees who hate one another is going to affect the results of the team.

So what do you do when you have two employees, both talented contributors, who can’t stand one another but their jobs require them to work together? You can’t make them like one another, but you can demand that they find a way to work together productively. And if they either actively or passively refuse? Then either one or both need to go.

One could argue that both need to be dismissed since they’re both contributing to the problem. But if they are both talented contributors, as I said, then retaining one might be the best thing for the business. Removing one of the two eliminates the issue, while still allowing you to retain the more valuable employee.

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If you haven’t faced this issue yet as a manager, I’d argue it’s only a matter of time. Ignoring it will lead to big problems as the other employees line up behind one or the other of their coworkers who are engaged in the feud. And, like the Hatfields and the McCoys, they may not be sure why the feud began, but they’ll be a part of it.

So make sure you meet this issue head on, even if it means you lose a talented employee—or two.

Readers, what’s your technique for dealing with two employees who “hate” each other? Click “Share Your Comments” below.

Dan Oswald is president of M. Lee Smith Publishers. His remarks first appeared in his blog, The Oswald Letter. You can sign up to receive The Oswald Letter via e-mail here.

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More Articles on E-pinions

  • Anonymous

    I was bullied by a team member I worked with a few years ago. When I was downsized, I don’t have proof, but based on various scenarios that I have researched, she has to be the one that is causing potential employers not to hire me (she is well connected and a loud mouth).

    My other question would be, if some one literally hates you for no apparent reason and is bad mouthing you, how do you stop it? Today some firms are calling people that know eachother for references which are biased because of hate/dislike.

    I was a very productive person but was a little quiet due to a lot of stress personally in my private life. She took this as I was being conceited and started spreading rumors about me that were not valid. We are both in HR and she knows better but I have no solid proof but jobs I have applied at and rejected from, I see she worked there, etc.

    So what does a person do about that? My private life is my business and just because I choose not to share it, doesn’t mean I should be treated like dirt as long as I participate, am proactive, go beyond the call of duty and work my required hours on time (with overtime).

  • Anonymous

    We talked to both employees repeatly pushing “respecting” vs. “liking” your co-worker. Finally one employee was let go and then the other employee repeated her “dislike and unable to work with attitude” with a different co-worker and had to be let go.

  • Anonymous

    I agreed with your thoughts until the very end. If you have done a thorough investigation and found both are engaging in unproductive conflict and you’ve counseled both on their behavior, you must let BOTH of the people go. Allow one person to keep his/her job not only reinforces the bad behavior but also opens the company up to possible discrimination charges from the person let go. If the fired individual is a minority, of an opposite sex, disabled (which,under the new ADA guidelines, we all are now), over the age of 40, complained about a company practice in the past (whistleblower), etc. it will be very hard to justify a termination when we retained another individual who was “doing the same thing”.

  • Anonymous

    Of course, you can ‘demand’ that they cooperate but then the conflict goes underground and toxic. A better way—go deep into the problem and explore the conflict. Are their problem solving skills in opposition? Is there history of a personal or work event that remains unresolved? This is a systemic event as soon as the “hate” becomes public. Do your whole team a favor and ask some detailed questions. Bring in EAP, Ombusds, or a talented HR manager that works from a proactive stance to reduce these types of behavioral risks to the workplace. That sends a message that while you are interested in maintaining productivity you are invested in your people.

  • Anonymous

    My personal philosophy, and I’m sure it is one that many in our field share, is that you don’t have to like your coworkers, you just have to work effectively with them. When two employees are at odds, it is often because they don’t understand one another’s situations or points of view.

    I have found it helpful to sit both people down with someone from HR, not in a threatening way but with the idea of seeking to understand. Sometimes a third party can defuse some of the hard feelings, get past the internal filters they are applying to one another, and help both parties rephrase things so that they can come to a common ground. A third party can also give them some disinterested feedback about their approach with one another–it can be easier for them to hear and identify with it that way.

    In the end, though, some people just lack emotional maturity, and the organization has to decide how long it wants to allow those individuals to drag the business through their daily dramas.

  • Anonymous

    I worked with a person that left no doubt that she hated my guts. The problem & accompanying tension was magnified when the supervisor said “you two solve this yourselves.” FYI – this is NOT a good way to handle this kind of employee problem.
    Tension & conflict continued in varying degrees until the “hater” retired and the tension & conflict had impact across other departments.

  • Anonymous

    As the target of hatred by my male co-workers it is interesting to see this being addressed. Unfortunately, the harassment became so bad I had to leave but not before I had contacted one of the top law firms in the state. Unfortunately, as the EA to the owner of the company (another jerk) part of my job is to review his e-mail…the blatant hatred for me was disturbing especially as it was not based on my work performance but because I was more competent than they and a woman.

  • Anonymous

    A dangerous position to be put in when only one of the two are terminated. Suggesting the “less valuable” employee be dropped is a best case scenario but unless that employee commited a zero tolerance action (physical violence, swearing, etc…) there is a door opened wide for retaliation. Imagine a member of a protected class being terminated over a fued where each employee had documented complaints about the other. A fine way to end up on a witness stand. I’ve had this same iussue play out for me years ago and had to let both employees go with just such an idea in mind. Two senior citizen, immigrant employees from the same county, same town. Hated eachother and would often get into shouting matches in Korean in common areas of the building. After documenting complaints and issuing warnings both men were let go. Though one was a model employee and the other had some performance issues. They were both guilty of disrupting the work place. Always stick to the issue of how they disrupt the workplace with their actions, removing any other factors that could land you in a court room.

  • Anonymous

    I have had this situation a few times in the past. In every case, there was a misunderstanding and a percieved breach of trust. Both employees would view the same situation through their sense of fear and see two different scenarios. I brought the two employees together and informed them that they are required to be civil and professional. They were placed on notice that they needed to correct this problem or they would be fired. In the short term, we separated the two employees and had them communicate through the supervisor. I mediated between the two and stressed that they practice assertive behavior and required that they go to our EAP counselors to learn and practice assertive behavior. We set up a meeting for the EAP counselor to talk to the whole department about effective teamwork and communications. Over a period of a few months, the two employees were able to work with each other again. I was prepared to terminate either or both employees if they failed to take corrective action and did anything to provoke the other.

  • Anonymous

    Many years ago I took a job at an insurance firm. There were about 20 women in this large room with the supervisor sitting in the back. I worked with two different women who sat at on either side of the room. What I soon found out is that they not only hated each other but that most of the rest of the women had taken sides. It was like junior high school where once side didnt’ speak to the other or you were a traitor. I had to straddle both sides of the fence and the supervisor did nothing. I worked 3 weeks and then quit because it was so uncomfortable and neither side was helping me learn the position.

  • Anonymous

    If two employees strongly dislike each other, after reminding them of the need to be respectful and “put on their business face”, my first instinct is to see if there is any way to separate them. Easiest and best for everyone. If there is, I make that recommendation and hope that it’s implemented right away.

    If not, I have to go I go to plan B–I then Remind them that they are adults, they have been hired to be productive, and their animosity is making them (and probably any team they are working on) less productive. As they have been hired to be productive, if they cannot find a way to be so, then the company will be forced to look elsewhere.
    And then, if it hasn’t been done already I have their supervisors start documenting any and every incident that needs to be.

    Either things improve, or someone leaves–but either way productivity goes up as does team morale.

    The fact is that especially in this economic market, very talented people are looking for jobs. Adults need to act as such.

    Everyone won’t get along, but everyone should be able to be respectful.

  • Anonymous

    If both employees fail to work together to meet agency/company goals and/or objectives then both employees should be released. Why would you keep two employees who refuse to adjust their attitude at work? Professional attitude is just as important as professional skills. Infact they often work hand in hand. If an employer decides to keep one employee and let the other go be sure the employee who is fired cannot accuse you and win a case of discrimination based on race, sex, age, national origin, etc

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for posting this article. It was an eye opener to read Mr. Oswald’s suggestions on what to do if two employees hate each other: fire one or both and that will elevate the problem. What Mr. Oswald failed to anticipate was that this solution is part of a hydra. He is cutting off one ‘bad’ head that will undoubtedly spawn three much worse. I have not been exposed to many employees that “like” each other because of the competition, promotion and recognition values each company projects towards employees. The “team” may be already aware of friction between its members, but if the team is professional and feels this is a trivial occurrence, productive team members will not take the time to care or allow it to affect their work.

    How an employee interprets matters can be a big part of the “hate” equation. How did it get to such a point? For example, why do they dislike/hate? Do they hate working with this person because they may be an unproductive worker and they are carrying the weight and getting kudos while that the employee receives no recognition, a friend of the C level, old boys network vs. lone female executive, diversity, family member, etc. HR needs to get to the core of the “hate”. Here’s a hint: many times it is not about an emotion, but because of how work is perceived by each. There is frustration among this type of employee. Firing them without finding out what the problem/frustration is may put a company in a lawsuit. Especially if both are excellent workers and contribute greatly to the bottom line. HR needs to be on top of this and defuse. Document, document, document. Evaluate. Report. Suggest.

    If the company is able, move one employee to a different department/location with equal responsibilities. If it is not able, get the employees with manager(s) and/or HR to air out grievances and ask, “What can WE do to help each of you?” If none of this works, lay out the next steps with a time line and a written final warning of dismissal for both. That would be a last resort in the matter after all areas are exhausted.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve handle a few but nothing than the last one. You’ll agree it’s unorthodox but it worked. These are two temporary employees who had worked together for a while and the work pressure lead to an unpleasant incident. They were brought into my office with a caveat, could not let them go until they finished a very important project. After listening to their version my request to them, and it shocked at them as well,was to not talk to each other for a week. Use emails, boards, post it notes to communicate. No verbal communication, period, not even voicemails. And they did in fact, but not for long, to my surprise I have to admit, they soon realized that they needed each other support to succeed. For three days manufacturing documents were not processed flawlessly. Truce was lift and today they are best friends. I’ll never encourage anyone to do something like this, but what can I say, it worked! We are complicated beings.

  • Anonymous

    If the end result is to lose a talented employee, then the better solution is to split them up. Why abandon a talented employee to be hired by a competitor, especially one you just gave then good reason to want to see you fail since you chose his antagonist over him. The best solution would be to diffuse the tension and mentor the employees to build a working relationship, failing that split them up. If the behavior repeats in the future with either employee with a different co-worker, then you have reason to believe this behavior will be a pattern and release the employee.

  • Anonymous

    The article on employees that hate each other raises all sorts of issues. The one that come to mind is “Immaturity”. Typically one party may be influenced by co-workers and then this creates a negative tone within the team. Usually if there are two people that dislike each other, I struggle with hate, then there are some bigger underlying issues. I disagree with terminating one employee. This is a dual problem and both should face the same consequence. What if you have a race or gender difference? The termination of someone has discrimination written all over it. The manager has to demand professionalism, and if he/she does not get it then both parties must go. Clearly if the dislike is based on race or gender then this is when the team member spraying his/her vemon of prejudice must face a tougher penality than his/her co-worker.

  • Anonymous

    I have had the opportunity to deal with this problem several times during my career as an HR leader. In several of the instances, one person had to go – the one that refused to work with another or the team, as an adult, despite numerous documented coaching and counseling sessions. In more cases, however, the individuals involved made the decision that their livelihood was more important than their real or perceived differences.

  • Anonymous

    Worse yet… What about when the HR person hates an employee because she’s jealous of the employee? Is HR allowed to go around and tell employees that she hates certain employees and can’t wait to fire them? Can HR tell employees she will not give favorable references on those she hates?

  • Anonymous

    I’ve had to deal with this issue several times over my HR career, and I’ve learned that one good way to solve the issue is to show the employees how immature, unproductive, and disruptive this type of behavior is and how they are perceived by their peers. The other thing I’ve learned is that talking to both employees to try and learn if there is an underlying issue or common denominator contributing to their dislike of one another has also been helpful. In one instance, I found out that another employee was actually working both sides and was an instigator in causing trouble between the other two employees. In response to Kris Kennedy, my suggestion would be that if you have some documentation that you can take to someone above your HR person to prove what you’re saying, that may help you solve that problem. Employees working in HR have a responsibility to employees to always remain impartial and fair, and to always be professional. This person shouldn’t be allowed to continue the behavior you’ve described. Talk to their manager and take documented facts if you can.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree with the theory of terminating one employee, I feel this all starts because of some reasons:Jealousy, junior employee being more capable, so a potential threat to the Sr. employee etc etc. It is better to understand the problem and than find a solution than to think of loosing the employee. Some time ambiguous roles are the root cause where nobody is responsible for a mistake and everybody is willing to take the credit for the good work.It is better to go deeper and resolve rather than loose one or both the employees.

  • Anonymous

    Hate is so ugly and it raises its ugly head way too often in the work place. If hate is a common visitor in your company, this might be an option for you; it was extremely beneficial to my company. If either or both employees have the ability to work from home, set up a rotating schedule where neither employee is in the office the same day. Remember the old saying, “Out of sight – Out of mind”… Two valuable employees who dislike each other with a ‘purple pasion’ now work well together thanks to technology.

  • Anonymous

    Meet with the feuding coworkers to see if you can remedy the situation. Do this quickly to avoid letting it fester and spiral out of control. Maintain an open dialogue with your employees. Freely sharing information and updates on the company and department will quell the need for gossip and rumors. Advocate an environment of respect, tolerance, and civility in the office and lead by example.

  • Anonymous

    This article doesn’t make any sense. Two co workers don’t get along so you decide to terminate one of the employees. I guess the manager keeps the employee he likes best. I agree you try coaching and counseling first, if that doesn’t work you have no choice but to start using progressive discipline.